U.S. allies should keep the global leadership ‘throne’ warm for Trump’s successor, authors say

How can the rules-based international order survive the Trump presidency, despite his constant attempts to upend it?

Two foreign policy blue-bloods propose that the U.S.’s traditional allies collectively step in as the defenders and promoters of democracy, freedom, free trade and human rights across the globe — until Trump is gone.

Ivo H. Daalder, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO, and James M. Lindsay, a senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, are out with a new book: The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership. They outline their plan for an interregnum in a companion piece entitled The Committee to Save the World Order published by Foreign Affairs.

The authors express despair over Trump’s assault on the agreements and protocols developed to “prevent the dog-eat-dog geopolitical competition that triggered World War II.” But they waste no time hoping for Trump to come around.

Instead, they propose that the “Committee to Save the World Order” take the U.S.’s traditional seat (throne) for the interim and keep it warm while the regular occupant is off carousing with dictators and launching trade wars. The group, which the authors nickname the “G-9”, would consist of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the EU in Europe; Australia, Japan, and South Korea in Asia; and Canada in North America.

This “G-9” should have two imperatives: maintain the rules-based order in the hope that Trump’s successor will reclaim Washington’s global leadership role and lay the groundwork to make it politically possible for that to happen. This holding action will require every member of the G-9 to take on greater global responsibilities. They all are capable of doing so; they need only summon the will.

As confirmed globalists, Daalder and Lindsay unsurprisingly put way more emphasis on free trade and military build-ups – without acknowledging any downsides — than they do on democracy and human rights. They cheer on multilateral trade agreements that simply carve out the U.S. for now. And they encourage military collaboration accompanied by sizable increases in defense budgets.

Obama left Trump a note on Inauguration Day, in which he wrote: “It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.”

But Daalder and Lindsay conclude that Trump “is not looking to reinvigorate the rules-based order by leading friends and allies in a common cause. They are the foes he wants to beat.”

And the authors declare that allies’ attempt to “placate Trump” have failed, so they should move on. “[E]fforts to compromise haven’t worked, and they aren’t likely to for one simple reason: what U.S. allies want to save, Trump wants to upend.”

In a realization that may apply across the board, Daalder and Lindsay acknowledge that Trump may have changed the political dynamics of foreign policy forever. They particularly worry that Trump has successfully branded the U.S.’s traditional allies as “ungrateful”. As a result, “his successor may pay a political price for trying to reclaim a global leadership role for the United States” – or may not even try.

Nevertheless, their hope remains that everything will go back to normal once Trump is gone. Others might hope for bolder reforms in the wake of Trump that could actually make things better than normal: that the negative effects of border-neutral capital flows on workers could be tempered or mitigated; that massive military budgets could be redirected toward more productive uses; or that the U.S. could take a more strongly moral but more humble — and less throney — approach as global leader.

The question here, as elsewhere, comes down to whether simply waiting Trump out is enough — or whether a powerful and aggressive popular movement to reverse Trumpism and improve the status quo ante is necessary to prevent elements of Trumpism from becoming the new normal.

Trump’s printed-out list of accomplishments is like his binky

Trump showing the list at a political rally in Las Vegas in September.
Trump showing the list at a political rally in Las Vegas in September.

When he’s feeling particularly defensive in an interview, Donald Trump calls out for “the list.”

When the Associated Press asked Trump on Tuesday what he would do if House Democrats, in a majority, sought his tax returns, he replied curtly: “They have to do whatever they do, and I’ll do whatever I do.”

But then something in his brain did something, and he launched into his familiar (sometimes laughter inducing) patter about having had “the most successful two years in the history of this country as a president.”

I’m guessing AP reporters Catherine Lucy, Zeke Miller and Jonathan Lemire looked skeptical, or impatient, or maybe couldn’t entirely stifle a chuckle, because Trump suddenly called out for “the list.”

Trump: And, would get me the list? Would you get me the list, please?

AP: Do you think you have the legal team necessary?

Trump: I have the most successful. Nobody has done what I’ve done, and nobody has come close in the first two years of office. And that’s despite the fighting, the Democrats’ obstruction.

Unidentified: I have extra copies …

Trump: Here, these are just some. I just put them down rough. But take a look at that. You all set?

AP: Yeah, yeah.

Trump: I mean, you go point after point, each point is a major event, but you just take a look. Confirmed more circuit court judges than any other new administration. Soon it will be than any administration in history. Who is the one, who’s the one president that percentage-wise has done better than me? There’s only one. George Washington — 100 percent.

(Laughter)

Trump: Nobody has gotten that yet.

 

The list. Source: Whitehouse.gov
The list. Source: Whitehouse.gov

“The list,” whose authorship we can possibly now trace back to Trump himself, was distributed by the White House press office in early September as a rebuttal to excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book, “Fear.” It came alongside statements from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the effect that Trump “has broken through the bureaucratic process to deliver unprecedented successes for the American people,” and from Chief of Staff John Kelly, who insisted that “The idea I ever called the President an idiot is not true.”

But now, “the list” has become a sort of psychic totem for Trump, a security blanket, a pacifier. He calls for it when he’s flustered.

New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi had a brush with “the list” during her bizarre private press conference with Trump on October 9.

Nuzzi, a gutsy 25-year-old phenom in the press corps, had attracted Trump’s attention, and he was troubled that she was working on a story about dysfunction in the White House and his possible imminent firing of Kelly (who did NOT call Trump an idiot) as his chief of staff.

“You’re gonna have to write what you have to write, but the truth is, we have a really smooth-running White House and nothing and nobody has done more in their first two years as president,” Trump insisted. “We’re not even up to the second year.”

Then, as Nuzzi explained in her article, he beckoned for “the list”:

The president craned his neck slightly upward, in the direction of the door. “Could you give me the list, please?” he asked, raising his voice so a secretary could hear. “I’ve gotta give you the list. Nobody has come close to doing what we’ve done in less than two years as president. Whether it’s regulations or tax cuts or so many other things.” The secretary walked into the room, holding two sheets of computer paper. “Give that to Olivia,” Trump said. “These are just some of the things that were done since taking office,” he told me.

Nuzzi described it thusly:

The pages were stamped with 58 bullet points, typed in a large font. At the top, underlined, bold, and all-caps, it read, “TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” On the first page, the points related mostly to jobs numbers or executive orders or promises from the tax-reform bill. On the second page, there were more puzzling accomplishments like, “Republicans want STRONG BORDERS and NO CRIME. Democrats want OPEN BORDERS which equals MASSIVE CRIME.”

“So,” Trump went on, “it would be great to have an accurately written story, because we do have — when you walk in here, I think you see, if you read something, it’s totally different than the fact.”

“The list” is Trump’s way of deflecting reality. It has become the central text of the alternative-fact universe that he shares with Fox News and members of his base,.

Here he is almost begging Nuzzi to accept “the list” as the truth.

“So what I’m saying— and this is not even updated. We have achieved a lot in the last month and a half, two months, since that’s been done. But we’ve done a really great job and it’s so reported by those that are, by those that want it to be accurately reported. And I think, at least, I should be able — because I know you’re gonna go in and write something — at least I should be able to tell you, out of respect, that the relationships are very good and I think you could say, Sarah, that the relationships in the White House have been very good, especially over the last six months, seven months. It’s been very, very smooth. It’s been a very smooth-running White House.” Sanders agreed.

To be fair, “the list” doesn’t only make an appearance when Trump is suddenly on the defensive.

He pulled it out at a rally in Las Vegas on September 20, read it out loud and riffed on it for 11 solid minutes. “Look at this,” Trump said, having pulled the list out of his  breast pocket. “So I said just write down some of the things. Each one, each one, point, point, point, four-and-a-half pages.”

 

UPDATE (8:30 a.m. October 18, 2018)

Olivia Nuzzi tells me she tweeted a picture of her list:

And she notes that the list made an appearance during an interview with the Daily Caller’s Saagar Enjeti and Vince Coglianese on September 4. This one contains yet another origin story:

Trump: “I did have something done for you guys cause I figured you may…”

White House Communications Director Bill Shine: “Sir, right on top of the little….”

Trump: “Oh, good, thank you. I just had this made up. This doesn’t even, no president in history has done what I’ve done in two years. The other side is going crazy, they are lunatics. And here’s a list of things that I’ve done that you guys can have. I just had it made up for you because you guys have always been fair. “

 

 

Saudi horrors should trigger Congress to assert its constitutional role again

Video image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.
Video image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.

The extent and severity of the U.S. response to the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi death squad could trigger a major conflict between Congress and the White House — possibly even leading the legislative branch to reassert its constitutional role for the first time since Trump’s rise to power

That Saudi Arabia could become the flashpoint for a congressional rebellion would have seemed highly unlikely a few years ago. The Kingdom has long financed a vast, costly and highly effective influence-peddling network in Washington, which was kicked up a notch in 2015. And Members of Congress have been trained to see cutting off military sales to any country as a political third rail after massive defense-industry spending on lobbyists and the distribution of defense facilities into as many congressional districts as possible.

But the apparently brutal, calculated murder of a U.S. resident who was a dissident Saudi journalist – after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey to obtain papers in order to marry his fiancée – has turned even stalwart congressional Saudi hawks into horrified critics.

It also comes after a number of bold -– though widely ignored — congressional votes that came surprisingly close to demanding that Trump end support for the Saudi-led coalition bombing of Yemen, which has generated seemingly unending images of civilian victims and has created arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Trump shows no signs of being shaken loose from his tight embrace with the Saudis, which has included reveling in the “royal treatment” during his visit to Riyadh last May and a lovefest with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during the heir apparent’s PR charm offensive in the United States six months ago.

Although Trump was willing to mock the Saudis for cheap laughs at political rallies earlier this month, he and his son-in law Jared Kushner have long seen the Saudis as their greatest friends in the region, along with Israel.

Trump has effectively ruled out cutting arms sales, and continues to describe his relationship with the royal family as “excellent”. And in comments to the press yesterday, Trump expressed contentment that King Salman had “firmly denied any knowledge” of the murder, then put forth a ludicrous, evidence-free conspiracy theory intended to deflect the blame from the royal family, saying perhaps “rogue killers” were involved. “Who knows?”

Nevertheless, Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on Sunday that “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.” So if and when the Saudi leadership is definitively identified as responsible, Congress can use that pledge as a blunt instrument to beat on Trump – if it chooses to.

Still, the easiest and best way to show some Congressional spine would be to keep moving forward on the earlier attempts to end U.S. support for the unconscionable Saudi-led bombing campaign that is killing civilians in Yemen.

Even more than insisting on punishment for the Khashoggi murder, demanding an end to that support would effectively seize back Congress’s core, constitutional powers from the president — in this case, the power to declare war. Congress has ceded vast amounts of its constitutionally-mandated authority to the executive branch, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks. And despite Trump’s obvious instability, it hasn’t reasserted itself in any way.

Most importantly, ending U.S. support to the coalition could also save the lives of countless civilian victims who would otherwise continue to be blown up by U.S. bombs in a largely ignored war

The House, in November of last year, overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution stating that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. It was admittedly a far cry from the original resolution demanding and end to the assistance, but the margin was significant. And this past February, after Senators Mike Lee (Republican), Bernie Sanders (independent) and Chris Murphy (Democrat) demanded a vote on ending military support, they came up only six votes short. Five Republicans supported the bill, with 10 Democrats opposed.

“I think one of the strong things that we can do is not only stop military sales, not only put sanctions on Saudi Arabia, but most importantly, get out of this terrible, terrible war in Yemen led by the Saudis,” Sanders said on Sunday.

And now you have unexpected voices like South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s talking about how he intends to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Similarly, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for end to “business as usual” on Sunday. “No matter how important they might be to our Iranian strategy, our ability to be a voice for human rights … is undermined and compromised if we are not willing to confront something as atrocious as what’s allegedly happened here,” he said.

A powerful bipartisan group of senators already took unprecedented action to force Trump’s hand last week. In a letter, 22 members of the Senate including the leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016, asserting a “gross violation of internationally recognized human rights against an individual exercising freedom of expression.” That means Trump must respond within 120 days with a classified or unclassified report that determines who was responsible, and says what he intends to do about it.

The congressional clock is ticking faster than that — but action is hardly guaranteed. There’s a reason the modern Congress’s approval rating is so low: It rarely fails to disappoint.

President says crazy thing we’re not going to dignify by putting in a headline

It happened again today. The president of the United States said something flat-out nutty, and our major news organizations treated it like normal news, slapping it into the headlines and passing it along to their readers with little more than the standard, buried “critics said” response.

Trump was telling reporters outside Marine One this morning that he had talked to King Salman of Saudi Arabia about what is almost universally presumed to be the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul nearly two weeks ago.

Trump said Salman “firmly denied any knowledge of it.” Then, Trump said this: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Here’s the full quote:

We are going to leave nothing uncovered.  With that being said, the King firmly denied any knowledge of it.  He didn’t really know.  Maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?  We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.

A reporter asked “who else could it be besides Saudi Arabia?” Trump replied:

I don’t know.  We’re going to try to getting to the bottom of it.  I can only tell you that his denial to me is — just one very, you know, relatively fast phone call.  Probably lasted 20 minutes.  His denial to me could not have been stronger that he had no knowledge.  And it sounded like he, and also the Crown Prince, had no knowledge.

The New York Times recognized the statement was a big deal, putting it in the headline of its story and the lede. But it wasn’t until the sixth paragraph that it offered any context – and even that was taking the comment seriously:

In introducing the possibility that another party could have been involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, the president opened a window for King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stand by their denials.

Like many other news organizations, the Times dodged any value judgment of its own, instead using this tweet from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) as the sole indication of its absurdity.

The Washington Post didn’t mention the rogue quote until the third paragraph of its story, but then waited eight more paragraphs to note that: “Trump floating a ‘rogue killers’ scenario prompted ridicule from Democrats in Congress.”

As many news organizations have reported, Turkish officials have identified the members of a 15-man Saudi team arriving and leaving the consulate in a black Mercedes van around the time of Khashoggi’s apparent murder. The team included a forensic expert who brought along a bone saw.

Suggesting, without any evidence, that this was a “rogue” operation is the desperate fabulation of a man who doesn’t want to acknowledge weakness by admitting anything bad about any of the authoritarian leaders he calls friends.

The Associated Press’s brief report on Trump’s comment came a bit closer to expressing the appropriate shock and skepticism, drily noting that “Trump’s language was strikingly similar to the language he has used to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election meddling.

And in fact the “rogue killers” hypothesis is strikingly similar to Trump’s lone hacker theory.

Talking during his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton who hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump famously said: “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?